THE state government is on the prowl for the folkloric big cats of Victoria - such as the panther-like creature said to haunt the sheep country around Beechworth. But veteran hunters of the often-seen but never caught pumas and cheetahs say the government is on the wrong track.
Simon Townsend and John Turner of are urging Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh to grab rubber gloves and a swab and start DNA testing the claw marks found on the remains of savaged lambs and calves.
Mr Townsend says his website receives up to three sightings a week, many by farmers who have complained about big cats killing stock.
It was this history of unhappiness that led Nationals leader Peter Ryan to pledge an investigation into the big-cat issue and establish ''once and for all'' if they actually exist.
Says John Turner: ''There's no doubt they exist. We have more than 500 eyewitness accounts. People can say it's just a black wallaby … but it's not a wallaby if it snarls and slinks about on four legs.''
Mr Turner has seen two such beasts, the last being a leopard-sized cat outside Beechworth four years ago. He and Mr Townsend worry that the government won't commit enough funds to the task. Says Mr Townsend: ''The best way would be DNA analysis of stock kills. That costs $500 for one sample. So let's hope they have sufficient funds allocated.''
Mr Townsend says the government ''seems to be serious, but I don't think they understand what a big undertaking it will be. They want to get it done quickly but that's not viable.''
Mr Townsend has been after them for 40 years, after first spotting a ''large black feline'' along the pipeline outside Warburton.
The Sunday Age has been told the preferred rubber-glove forensic approach has taken a back seat to the cheaper option of whatever you call that rubber studded thing you put on your thumb to avoid a paper cut.
Rather than hitting the bloodied trail, Department of Agriculture staff are trawling through all the records of sightings to establish if any of them ring true. A spokeswoman says: ''We are conducting a limited investigation into the issue of big cats to determine once and for all if they exist.''